How does reading fiction affect our brains and behavior?

Psychologists point out that reading and literacy can have an impact on an individual's behavior, thereby reducing violence as a whole and creating a freer, more inclusive society. Reading books, especially novels, can significantly improve a reader's ability to empathize.

But how exactly does reading change the brain?

The reading brain


Stories are a powerful communication tool. Reading stories allows us to transcend our physical limitations and experience different lives and different realities. What exactly happens in our brains when we read stories?

Reading can bring us a series of benefits, such as improving imagination, enhancing empathy and so on. Short-term benefits include rapid improvements in language comprehension, easier empathy, learning to self-reflect, and more. Specifically, reading can strengthen the function of the following brain areas:

Limbic system: the area of the brain involved in learning, emotion, and memory formation;

Visual text forming area: It can help us visualize text in the form of pictures.

Wernicke language area: The brain area responsible for language processing.

Bruca language area: The brain area involved in speech formation.

Prefrontal cortex: involved in complex thought processing, personality expression, decision making, social behavior regulation, and an increase in goal-directed behavior.

The brain when reading novels


Reading novels is a bit like a situational simulation, allowing us to use words to construct an alternate reality in our minds. By reading, we can jump out of our own lives and experience countless different lives.

The process of reading a novel activates specific neural networks in the brain. The same neural network is activated when humans perform any type of simulated activity. There are two main types of neural networks in the brain that light up when we read a story. One type allows us to build scenarios in our minds, imagining the physical space described in the novel; the other type allows us to think about characters, their lives, and mental states.

These two types of neural networks operate independently of each other. But researchers have observed that there is actually a correlation between these networks that allows us to understand the mental states of fictional characters, which can help us better understand the thoughts and behaviors of others.

This ability to empathize with others is called "theory of mind." Readers all have their favorite literary genre, some prefer romance, horror, or thriller, while others prefer non-fiction. Interestingly, reading both literary and romance novels showed the highest level of correlation in improving mental capacity. Reading such novels can help readers better understand what other people want and need. Therefore, reading can serve as a simulation exercise, giving readers the opportunity to experience different realities, experience different situations, and feel the lives of others. This helps them better understand the social needs of other people in the real world.

Reading novels changes brain structure


People's reading habits are different, so brain structure may also be different. Reading can even alter specific brain regions early in brain development.

Reading books can substitute us into the mind and body of the protagonist in the book. This experience stimulates areas of the brain associated with sensation (somatosensory cortex) and movement (motor cortex), thereby enhancing the connections between neurons in these areas. The study also showed that the enhancement effect on the somatosensory and motor cortex persisted even after reading the book for a period of time.

In a research experiment, a group of students underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging scans while reading the thriller novel Pompeii. After the subjects read several chapters of the book, the scientists performed several scans on them in stages. It was found that there was an increase in activity in the subjects' left hemisphere, which contains some areas of the brain associated with language perception, as well as the central sulcus. The latter is the basic motor cortex of the brain and plays a certain role in the use of visual imagination.

The increased brain activity in these areas persisted even after the subjects stopped reading. This may mean that reading can cause long-term changes in brain activity.

The study also found that regular reading of literature was associated with "less decline in verbal ability" and "stronger memory", thus reducing the risk of dementia-related disorders in older age.

Reading can experience a thousand kinds of life.

If you also like to read novels, welcome to Panda Novel to exchange and discuss.